Illinois activists establish statewide peace and justice coalition

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Nearly 150 delegates from about 80 organizations, half of them from outside the Chicago metro area, met here April 1 to found the Illinois Coalition for Peace and Justice.

“We’re united here today because we think the war in Iraq is wrong and that it must be stopped,” said Mary Shesgreen of Fox Valley Citizens for Peace and Justice in her welcome to the delegates. “And we want to see the antiwar movement take root in every little town and hamlet in Illinois.”

Shesgreen called for a “strong and gutsy organization” that would not only work to end the war in Iraq, but would also take a “proactive approach to preventing future wars.”

“We know this administration has at least one more war up its sleeve,” she said.

The new coalition immediately got to work. Before the day was over, it adopted action proposals that included placing, wherever possible, referendums against the Iraq war on the November ballot in towns and cities across Illinois, and supporting a Memorial Day “Walk for Justice and Peace” from Springfield, the state’s capital, to North Chicago, Ill., a distance of 250 miles.

It resolved to intensify pressure on Congress through a “sustained campaign” of petitioning, vigils, and encampments outside the offices of elected officials to “immediately reverse and stop the White House war effort” and to bring the troops home.

The group also heard calls to support the national peace march on April 29 in New York City, to support antiwar candidates in the 2006 elections, and to strengthen links with community struggles for jobs, health care, housing and racial justice.

James Thindwa, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, a labor-community coalition dedicated to safeguarding workers’ rights to organize, gave the keynote.

“The struggle against this war is very important for workers,” Thindwa said. “After all, it’s workers who are fighting and dying in Iraq, and the money that’s being spent to wage this war is taking money away from health care, education and other human needs.”

He appealed to the delegates to build stronger, long-term ties with unions and community movements fighting for justice and equality at home.

“Ninety-five percent of the Black community is against this war,” Thindwa said. “But take a look around you,” he added, alluding to the small number of African Americans in the meeting hall. “Blacks are not represented here in the numbers that you would expect.”

Thindwa urged the delegates to draw upon the best traditions of the civil rights movement, including its strong links with religious congregations “steeped in the message of social justice,” to build a powerful force to stop “this illegal, illegitimate and useless war.”

He also urged the coalition to help develop “the language we need to convince community activists that things will only get worse as long as the U.S. is still fighting this war in Iraq.”

The same principle applies to building ties with the immigrant rights movement, he said. “The attack on immigrants is not a coincidence, but is related to the war in Iraq,” he said. “Immigrants are being scapegoated to take people’s minds off the war.” At the same time, he said, “Ending the war in Iraq is as important to winning immigrant rights as anything else.”

Addressing controversy among antiwar forces over whether to become involved in the 2006 elections, Thindwa said, “We have to recognize that elections have consequences. Look at the response to Hurricane Katrina. Look at Iraq.”

He said electoral work and non-electoral work are not mutually exclusive, and “getting good people in office is important.” Similarly, he said, “city resolutions and ballot initiatives against the war also add up,” and involve coalition-building with long-term benefits.

Thindwa’s keynote was well received by delegates, who filled a cavernous, second-floor hall in the McKinley Church and Foundation.

“I’m delighted to see this effort to build a better statewide network,” said Carol Ammons, 34, of Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice. “It’s great to see diverse people getting together to share ideas and skill sets.”

Ammons’ group, while opposing the Iraq war, takes a wider view of what constitutes war. “War translates into things like attacks on the well-being of people at home, attacks on education, attacks on justice,” she said, particularly on African American communities such as hers.

Herb Edwards, 68, a member of the Peace Committee of the First Presbyterian Church in Macomb, said his town’s peace movement sponsored a march and rally of 300 against the war on March 18, the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion. The Macomb Area Alliance for Peace and Justice includes a large, interdenominational, faith-based component, including participation by Muslims, he said.

The big challenge, Edwards said, is to build an organization that can effectively coordinate peace activists around the state. He hopes the new group will “keep those of us in the western part of the state apprised of what’s going on elsewhere.”

Kathleen Bartlein, 51, of Rockford Citizens for Peace and Justice, was optimistic. “I’m hopeful this conference will push for peace and help stop the war,” she said. “We need to put pressure on our elected officials to get out of Iraq.”

In general, Bartlein said, “the Bush administration’s agenda is non-peace. It’s trying to undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for example.”

A 20-year-old student who identified himself only as Greg traveled to the meeting from Carbondale, at the southern tip of the state, where he belongs to Students for Peace and Democracy. “It’s a little difficult sometimes to involve students at Southern Illinois University in the struggle,” he said, “but events like this one are good. It helps to see other people around the state who are promoting peace and justice.”

Ra Chaka, project organizer for the Chicago-based African American Alliance for Peace and Justice, said, “Most people in Chicago’s Black community understand this war was based on a bunch of lies. Bush knew it was a lie from the beginning, yet he chose to go ahead and invade.”

“Even Bush’s people know this was a war for regime change and oil,” he said.

Chaka, 60, said his group tries to educate African Americans that the war takes a heavy toll on the community, “not only in the direct losses of sons and daughters who are killed there, but in the related cuts to vital programs for our children and the elderly.”

“The money has to come from somewhere,” he said.

The coalition voted to establish a relatively loose network headed by a coordinating committee, and it set up five working groups. A full list of the committees and the action proposals can be found at the group’s web site, ilcpj.org.

Delegates left the meeting with a feeling that the antiwar movement is gaining strength.